Where the fish are

Last summer I caught the trout of a lifetime.

N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission

I was working through the brush along a little stream in a remote part of Pisgah National Forest. It was late in the season, and I was fishing a foam beetle that’s seen the insides of the mouths of more fish than the rest of my standby flies combined.

As I headed upstream, I reached the bottom end of a long section of slow, glass-smooth water—the kind of pool one comes across from time to time in shallow mountain streams where decent fish can usually be found. I walked up quietly and flipped my beetle onto the surface about 10 feet in front of me, since the overhanging branches made a long cast difficult and the stillness of the pool made a roll cast inadvisable.

Even a hack like me gets lucky sometimes—the eaten-up beetle had barely hit the water before there was a swirl in the pool and the fly disappeared. Five minutes later, I landed a wild brown trout in the 25-inch range with a mouth that was hooked like a salmon’s and big enough to fit my whole fist inside. The trout’s sides and underbelly were a collage of the same rich colors the Appalachian woods turn in October: red, yellow, silver and a dozen shades of brown.

I released it back into the water, only slightly miffed that there wasn’t someone around to witness the impossible: a massive wild fish, on par with a good Yellowstone brown, inhabiting a space roughly the size and depth of a backyard kiddie pool.

In my occasional fly-fishing columns for Xpress, I’ve stayed away from offering much in the way of specific information about where to fish and what to use. I haven’t really gone into any of the stuff that most people want to know. So in this column, without giving away any secrets, I’m including some basic information along those lines. Hope it helps.

Western North Carolina offers loads of fly-fishing opportunities for the hardcore angler. Tight, cramped streams and shallow, fast rivers combine to form water that is perfect for trout and often devilishly difficult for anglers. Jim Casada, a well-known outdoors author who has fished the streams of the Southern Appalachians for half a century, recently told me that if a fly fisherman can catch fish in the Smokies, he can probably catch fish anywhere. Of course, Casada is biased (he grew up here), but that doesn’t stop him from being right. I’ve heard plenty of guides complain about rich customers with Missouri-sized egos who just can’t get it in their heads that a person can catch good fish without casting 120 feet, and that even attempting such a cast would be foolhardy around here.

Streams like the North Mills River and the Davidson River provide incredible opportunities to sight-cast to large pods of trout hovering in tiny, overgrown pools. Unless you’re willing to trek a few miles into the woods, though, the fish have probably seen most of the contents of your fly box before, which further compounds the difficulties of trying to cast under a tangle of rhododendron.

In fact, many of the best trout rivers in the area are just glorified creeks. One of my favorites is Waynesville’s Jonathan Creek, affectionately known to locals as “J” Creek. It’s a tiny trickle of a stream that cuts through neighborhoods, trailer parks, RV campgrounds and golf courses before swelling larger as it leaves town. Its size notwithstanding, I’ve heard of 30-inch browns inhabiting the creek’s deeper pools, and I know for a fact there was at least one of that size in there, because Roger Lowe happens to have it mounted on the wall of his Waynesville fly-fishing shop.

The best surefire place to catch big fish in small water is Transylvania County’s Davidson River. The Lower Davidson is the most heavily stocked mile of water in the state and possibly the most heavily fished, but the Upper Davidson is fly-fishing and catch-and-release only, with some massive wild fish and holdovers (stocked trout that persist from year to year). Admittedly, the term “wild” is a bit of a misnomer for the Davidson—its fish population is beefed up by the streamside hatchery’s practice of pumping hundreds of pounds of trout pellets into the water each week.

Still, the Upper Davidson can be an incredibly fun, if overly technical, place to fish. Small flies and small leaders are particularly effective against the highly cautious trout there. I have yet to find a better combination than a two-weight rod, 8X leader and tippet and size-22 Adams for fishing the riffles of the Upper “D.”

The North Mills is another excellent small stream in the area, though as a rule its fish aren’t as big as those in the Davidson. A careful, quiet fisherman can reasonably expect to have 25-plus fish days there if he or she isn’t afraid to walk upstream from the over-fished campground area.

Haywood County’s Pigeon River is another hidden gem, particularly the stretch around the steel bridge (which you’ll know by the sign for “Steel Bridge Road”). A “hatchery supported” stream, the Pigeon gets fished hard in the summer and early fall, but after a few stockings in the later fall, the catch-and-release winter fishing can be excellent there.

The French Broad, too, is never a waterway to overlook. The long, meandering river suffers from the best kind of multiple personalities—at its headwaters near Rosman, the French Broad is a fast, clear trout stream. As it grows and widens, it becomes a phenomenal smallmouth fishery, begging to be floated. A white zonker stripped fast works wonders on the French Broad. One hundred fish days are not uncommon.

My personal favorite, though, is the highly underrated Laurel River, aka Big Laurel Creek, in a remote part of Madison County. After a good five-to-10 mile stretch of water with easy roadside access, the Laurel goes native, leaving the road and flowing through the undeveloped wilderness around the Madison stretch of the French Broad. Depending on the time of year, the Laurel can be packed full of stocked fish, holdovers and wild fish, as well as the occasional smallmouth bass that wanders up from the French Broad. I once hooked into a 12-inch “smallie” while fishing a black-ant pattern on the Laurel’s far upper stretches. Needless to say, I thought I’d hooked the mother of all trout until I saw what it was.

Whatever river you choose to visit—be it one of those recommended above or another of WNC’s dozens of great trout streams—you’re destined for a good time. Just bring plenty of extra flies, plenty of patience and be sure to practice your roll cast technique before you go.

[Sam Wardle lives in Asheville. He fishes all over.]

Where to find ‘em

Davidson River
Location: Transylvania County, Pisgah National Forest
Directions: Follow I-26 east from Asheville to exit 9. Go straight past airport and turn right onto Highway 276. The road follows the lower Davidson; to reach Upper Davidson and hatchery area, follow 276 for several miles and turn left at sign for hatchery.
Species: brown trout, rainbow trout, occasional brook trout
Regulations: Lower Davidson is closed to harvest from Feb. 28 until the first Saturday in April. All other days, seven trout per angler may be harvested with no size limit. Upper Davidson is artificial lure, single hook, catch-and-release only.

North Mills River
Location: Henderson County
Directions: Follow I-26 east from Asheville to exit 9. Pass airport and turn right on S.R. 1345 at sign for North Mills Recreation Area. Follow road to end of river.
Species: brown trout, rainbow trout, brook trout
Regulations: Artificial lure, single hook only. No fish may be harvested from Oct. 1 until sunrise on the first Saturday in June. From 6 a.m. on the first Saturday in June to Oct. 1, seven fish may be harvested per angler with no size limit.

Laurel River
Location: Madison County
Directions: From Hot Springs, go east on U.S. 25/70 to its intersection with S.R. 208 at Big Laurel Creek. Turn right and park in gravel lot to fish downstream, or turn right and follow the stream for several miles with ample roadside access.
Species: brown trout, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass
Regulations: Big Laurel Creek (N.C. 208 bridge to U.S. 25-70 bridge) is regulated under the Delayed Harvest program (same as North Mills River).

Pigeon River
Location: Haywood County
Directions: From Asheville, take I-40 west to exit 37. Turn left at bottom of ramp. Turn right onto N.C. 19/23 S. Travel 4.8 miles into downtown Canton, turn right across intersection to stay on N.C. 19/23 S. Turn left on Highway 110 S. Travel 5.4 miles to traffic light, go straight onto Highway 215 S. After traveling 2.8 miles, turn left on Lake Logan Road.
Species: brown trout, brook trout, rainbow trout
Regulations: Delayed Harvest.

French Broad River
Location: Runs from headwaters near Rosman through Asheville and into Madison County before leveling out as it heads into Tennessee.
Species: trout, smallmouth bass, muskellunge, catfish, panfish
Regulations: Regulations differ widely from species to species and from different areas of the French Broad.

Visit www.wildlife.state.nc.us for a complete and up-to-date listing of all rivers before you fish.

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